Over the course of my career as a marriage counselor, I have heard thousands of stories about intimate relationships that have gone wrong.
Love, which takes much less effort in the beginning of a relationship, increasingly requires far more effort, relational skills and stick-to-it-ness as the relationship matures. Because of the almost unlimited number of ways that two people can hurt each other - or act insensitive, selfish or irritating - it is easy to feel less close, less responsive and less connected over time. That's when two people quit trying as hard as they once did, and they put less heart into their relationship.
If you are going to avoid or overcome that tendency, here are some of the factors that are critical to the success of happy intimate relationships:
If I say something is important to me, make it important to you. If you are unwilling to do this, I won't feel valued by you - because you are not offering me what I want - but rather what you feel like giving. I will feel loved if you are responsive to what I say matters to me - and I will have a much harder time feeling loved by you if you aren't acting like my feelings, needs, wants and dreams are important to you.
In nearly every troubled relationship, there's a good chance that there is too much "me" or "you," and not enough "us." "Us" is the place where we are looking at the world binocular rather than monocular, where we see ourselves as a partnership and we're both looking out for the relationship. That means each of us must become a guardian of our relationship, protecting and maintaining the connection and the warmth between us.
Being physically affectionate day in and day out. Affectionate touch is the aphrodisiac that keeps the fire burning. It's the glue that keeps the two of you close, connected and bonded to each other. Ignore this advice at your own peril.
Happy couples make their intimate relationship a top priority in their lives. They don't spend their "prime time" consistently preoccupied with other concerns - or too tired to consistently show up emotionally or physically. They take an active interest in the other person and his/her feelings, hopes, hurts, angers and fears, and they offer their emotional presence most of the time.
Learn to express your hurt, anger, disappointments and frustrations in a more skillful manner. You can speak your peace and still be respectful. You must remove your reactivity, defensiveness, hostility, sarcasm and negativity from the dialogues between the two of you. This is about being emotionally safe in a relationship. That means that I will refrain from threatening the relationship and refrain from put-downs, belittling or disrespectful behaviors - even in the face of my partner's insensitivity, withdrawl, anger or bone-headedness. It also means that I won't take out my negative energy or anger on you.
Be a good communicator. Most people, who think they are good communicators, in fact talk too much and are terrible listeners. That is poor, not good communication. Good communicators are skilled in handling differences, conflicts and ruffled feathers, and they remove their criticisms and negative judgments when talking with each other. They know there are no winners in a fight between two people who love each other, but there can easily be two losers. Good communicators make sure that both people have a voice in the relationship and that their partner's concerns and requests are heard and treated with respect.
Express warmth. Use endearments, affection, sex, romance, cards, phone calls, texts, emails, gifts, flowers, compliments, date nights and whisper sweet nothings in your partner's ear.
Let your partner know what he does right. You are no doubt excellent at letting him know what he does wrong. Likewise, tell her what you like, love, respect and admire about her every time you think about it.
Honesty. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.
Assumption of good will. Absence of malice and benefit of doubt.
Find ways of having fun together. The couple that plays together usually stays together.
What do you do to communicate to your partner that you cherish him or her? We all want kindness, and we all want someone to spoil us and to treat us as if we're special.
The bottom line about how to strengthen your relationship: quit looking at how you could have a better partner, and start looking at how you could be a better partner.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. His column is in its 20th year of publication, and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, or email him through his website: www.heartrelationships.com.